Own Goal

Why Dilma Rousseff's decision to stand up Obama hurts Brazil more than the United States.


Dilma Rousseff just snubbed the president of the United States. Scheduled to meet with Barack Obama and attend a state dinner at the White House in late October, the Brazilian president announced on Tuesday that she’s postponing the visit over revelations that the National Security Agency has been spying on her government, as well as Brazil’s largest oil company, Petrobras. It’s a move that will surely play well at home, but ultimately it hurts Brazil more than it hurts the United States. Rousseff might not be coming to Washington, but few in the U.S. capital will even notice.

To be sure, the NSA allegations — which singled out U.S. snooping on governments and corporations in Germany, the European Union, Mexico, and Brazil — are deeply troubling. More than just a frightening overreach by a rogue agency and program, the charges (and rather cavalier response by U.S. officials) demonstrate a remarkable disregard for national sovereignty on the part of the United States. They also smack of hypocrisy coming from the self-proclaimed global protector of individual rights and freedoms. What they don’t do is merit the cancellation — or indefinite postponement — of a planned state visit that could have advanced Brazilian interests and deepened ties between the hemisphere’s two largest economies.

The decision to forgo the long-anticipated visit — Brazil’s last was in 1995 — was clearly intended to send a loud public rebuke to the United States and rally Rousseff’s leftist domestic political base ahead of next year’s presidential election (Rousseff and her center-left party, Partido dos Trabalhadores, have seen their public approval ratings battered by a series of corruption scandals and the mass social protests that swept the country in June and July.) Accordingly, her diplomatic affront to the colossus to the north has been splashed all over Brazilian and Latin American media. But elsewhere, few paid much attention. In Wednesday’s New York Times, for example, the cancellation only warranted a short, one-page article on A4. In fact, it didn’t even make the small news summary at the bottom of the front page, which gave the spot to a story of how China’s influence is ebbing in Africa. 

In reality, the trip matters far more to Brazil than it does to the United States. Sure, the United States has spent years cultivating its relationship with Brazil, expanding commercial, cultural, diplomatic contacts, and dispatching top officials — including Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and Secretary of State John Kerry — to Brasília (the latter to hold discussions with the Brazilian government over the NSA revelations). But Rousseff’s visit to the White House would have featured discussions on a range of issues directly related to Brazil’s national interest, including cooperation on energy, closer commercial ties, and potential advances on a bilateral investment treaty. In addition, with the debate over U.N. versus near-unilateral U.S. action in Syria still pending, the visit would have been an opportunity for the world’s sixth-largest economy to advance its much-sought after role as a multilateral broker. It would have also provided a far more effective forum to raise the Brazilian government’s concerns about NSA spying, without engendering resentment within the U.S. administration over a spurned invitation. 

But instead, whether for reasons of domestic politics or personal pique, the Brazilian government chose symbolism over substance. 

World powers don’t behave like petulant victims. Some have cast the U.S. response to the Brazilian decision as a vestige of paternalism — just one more slight in a long history that has seen the United States treating South America like its backyard and the continent’s governments like lackeys who should be grateful when Uncle Sam bestows attention or praise on them. There may be an element of that at play. But it hardly excuses the Brazilian reaction. The European Union and Germany — both targets of NSA spying similar in focus and scope to that revealed in Brazil — arguably have far more reason to feel betrayed by the United States given their close historic military and diplomatic alliances, and the current negotiations to establish a U.S.-EU free trade agreement. Yet both have dealt with these issues quietly and diplomatically, without all the grandstanding and sense of victimization. 

Brazilian hostility toward the United States in the wake of the Edward Snowden affair is not a new development. All summer, Brazil has consistently made the NSA revelations an issue, even before it became clear that the espionage program had targeted Rousseff and her government personally. At a snap meeting of the Union of South American Nations in Cochabamba, Bolivia, on July 4, the Brazilian government added its voice to a regional declaration against the grounding of Bolivian President Evo Morales’ plane in Austria when it was thought to be ferrying Snowden from his hideout in the Moscow transit lounge. Then, a few weeks later, Brazil joined with the other governments of the Southern Cone Common Market in temporarily pulling its ambassadors from the European countries that had denied Morales’ plane over flight rights — again citing the insult to national sovereignty. The move seemed excessively symbolic for a country that aspires to have a seat at the table of the world powers.   

This is the first time in recent history that a country has canceled a state visit to the United States, an event offered only to select allies and partnerships that goes well beyond a bilateral sit-down.  And this particular invitation was intended to be a celebration of sorts — of Brazil’s arrival as a world power and of a new era of equal partnership. Sure, Brazil doesn’t need America’s blessing or the pomp and circumstance of a state visit to realize its new status. But it will need its support on a number of issues, including increased access to the U.S. market and its desire for an expanded role in multilateral organizations. More importantly, if Brazil wants to be seen as a diplomatic world power, it will need to move beyond symbolic posturing and a knee-jerk sense of victimization.

It’s possible that if Rousseff wins reelection next year, she may get a new invitation to the White House. Indeed, the U.S. administration’s strained patience in accepting this snub — and making the best of it — may help her achieve reelection. But having been stood up once, she shouldn’t expect Obama to take a new offer lightly.

Christopher Sabatini is a senior fellow for Latin America at Chatham House, the director of Global Americans, and a lecturer at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. Twitter: @ChrisSabatini

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